When I first heard that Volume VI of John Owen’s works was being edited I was nervous. Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers has been the most helpful thing I have ever read in understanding my sinfulness and how to fight sin to the glory of God.
After reading the Foreword [John Piper pp. 11], Preface [Justin Taylor pp. 15], Acknowledgements, Introduction [Kelly M. Kapic pp. 23], and Overview [Justin Taylor pp. 37] my worries were gone. These men fired me up to read this work again, and I was excited that it would be structured, on the page, in such a way that I could understand and apply the Holy Spirit’s principles, through John Owen, to my life more effectively.
Foreword: John Piper
Of people today Piper says, “…most of the miseries people report are not owing to the disease but its symptoms. They feel a general malaise and don’t know why, their marriages are at the breaking point, they feel weak in their spiritual witness and devotion, their workplace is embattled, their church is tense with unrest, their fuse is short with the children, etc. They report these miseries as if they were the disease. They want the symptoms removed. (Pp. 11)” How true this is, and we must see how it works in us! Humans tend to hate the effects of sin, not the sin itself. This is seen where Owen says, “Men may see their sickness and wounds, but yet, if they make not due applications, their cure will not be effected (pp. 65)." Owen highlights this theme throughout Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
Preface: Justin Taylor
Justin states one of their goals is to “reintroduce John Owen to the church today. (pp. 15)” Further he talks about the difficulty of understanding Owen through a J. I. Packer quote (pp.15-16). Packer said, “Owen did not write for superficial readers… (pp.16).” He is spot on! It’s almost a frightening thing to read, because he analyzes the human condition so precisely that your soul is laid bare before the book and you have no other option other than either harden your heart to the words, or repent! Justin further outlines their pragmatic purpose of editing this volume, “…we are seeking to present something new [contrasting two other editions of the work…abridged and one from the 1850’s]: an unabridged but updated edition of Owen’s three classic works that preserves all of Owen’s original content but seeks to make it a bit more accessible [and he footnotes that they are also editing Volume II of Owen’s works Communion with God]. (Pp. 17)” In my opinion their efforts are a success!
Introduction: Kelly M. Kapic
Have you ever desired a Father in the faith? Someone older to mentor you? Kapic discusses how he has, and in his course of reading Owen, his wife Tabitha pointed out, “You are being mentored. (pp. 23)” This introduction spurs you on with excitement to dig into the book you’re about to read. He says there is a, “value of listening to the saints of old (pp. 24),” and that Owen is a, “perceptive physician who delivers both a terrifying diagnosis and the means of a miraculous cure. (pp. 24)” He puts the works in perspective biographically (Pp. 24) and historically (Pp. 25). He states that Owen deals with many contemporary issues of depression, addiction, apathy, and lust (pp. 26).
He considers the “monastic mistake” of how a perceived physiological control of ones body does not necessarily diminish sin in ones life (Pp. 26). Asceticism is not the goal in this volume. Deeper communion with Jesus Christ is the goal and the means is through the mortification of sin, not legalistic “rigid regiments”. Further, Kapic states, “The goal of the Christian life is not external conformity or mindless action, but a passionate love for God informed by the mind and embraced by the will. (Pp. 28)” He also points out Owen’s “Christian hedonism” tendency, “Resisting sin, according to this Puritan divine, comes not by deadening your affections but by awakening them to God himself. Do not seek to empty your cup as a way to avoid sin, but rather seek to fill up with the Spirit of life, so there is no longer room for sin. (pp. 28)” This puts Owen in a category with Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis, John Piper, Augustine, etc.
Kapic also points out that, “Past faithfulness is not a protection against present dangers. (pp. 30)” Kapic covers a lot more ground, but in his conclusion he points out a few important things to keep in mind as we read. He says, “Owen makes it perfectly clear that the power of sin and Satan were just as real then as now (pp. 35),” and that, “Believers should read Owen not to return to the past but to gain insight into how they might more faithfully live in the present and prepare for the future. (pp. 35)”
If all of this wasn’t enough Kapic ends the introduction by saying, “You stand at the threshold of Dr. John Owen’s office. Will you enter and receive the diagnosis, and stay to hear your cure? (pp. 35)” Wow! I can’t think of a better way to motivate someone to read this book. The editors did an extremely good job pumping up the volume. Now on to Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers
Overview: Justin Taylor
Justin gives a brief overview of the book which is really helpful. In light of how deep the book delves into the human condition this kind of explanation really helps digestion of the material.
They divided the work in to three parts. One, the necessity of mortification starting with an exposition of Romans 8:13. Two, defining the mortification of sin and directions on how to mortify, “Owen argues that mortification is a habitual, successful weakening of sin that involves constant warfare and contention against the flesh (pp. 37).” Three, a pastoral counsel in how to mortify sin.
Justin also gives the 9 directions for the soul with regard to mortification [They appear in chapter 9-13]:1.) Consider symptoms listed attending to sin (pp. 96)
2.) Get a clear sense in your mind of the guilt and evil of your sin (pp. 97)
3.) Load your conscience with the guilt of sin (pp. 103)
4.) Constantly long after deliverance from the power of sin (pp. 106)
5.) Consider what sins your constitution is disposed to (pp. 107)
6.) Know when your sins dominate and watch against them (pp. 109)
7.) Rise mightily against the first acting of your sin (pp. 109)
8.) Exercise meditations that fill you with disgust of your sin (pp. 110)
9.) Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it (pp. 118)
Discussing part three Taylor points to Owens focus that, “we must set our faith on the cross work of Christ for the killing of sin…work of mortification must be done in the power of the Spirit. (pp. 38)”
[From the book I picked up 3 main points running throughout]
I. Mortification is the Work of the Holy Spirit of God
Owen alludes to this throughout the entire book. Mortification must be from the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the, “principal cause of the performance of this duty… (pp. 47),” “He works in us as he pleases (pp. 58),” “Without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5) (pp. 60),” “all graces and good works which are in us are his…He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us (pp. 62).” [See also pages 70, 75, 78-81, 86, 108, 124, 134, 138-139 on how mortification is the work of the Holy Spirit.] Chapter 3 covers this topic well as well.
He lists three ways that the Spirit mortifies sin. One, by causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh, and the fruits thereof and principles of them. Two, by a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin, for the weakening, destroying, and taking it away. Three, He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives us communion with Christ in his death and fellowship in his sufferings (pp. 61). Men can’t do this and this is Owens biggest problem with the Roman Catholic perception of mortification (pp. 58, 59, 83, 85, 108, and 120).
There are four points at the very end of part 3 (pp. 139) [The Means of Mortification] that explain the Spirits work in Mortification1.) The Spirit alone establishes the heart in expectation of relief from Christ [2 Corinthians 1:21].
2.) The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power; for by the Spirit we are baptized into the death of Christ [Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13].
3.) The Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification… [Ephesians 3:16-18].
4.) In all the soul’s addresses to God in this condition, it has support from the Spirit… [Zechariah 12:10; Romans 8:26; 2 Corinthians 12:8].
II. Sin is to be Taken Seriously because It Sends Souls to Hell
There is a connection between mortification and eternal life (pp. 46)! The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh (pp. 49). Owen points out that things aren’t always what they seem. When we think a sin is dead it may not be completely dead. And when we focus all our attention onto one specific sin we can be assured that there are probably many other sins, possibly more serious that we don’t heed any attention to. This can be deadly. “The contest is for our lives and our souls (pp.54).” If we go after a sin such as sexual immorality we might be killing an action, but not the root of the cause of the outward sign of the sin. We might have fear of man, unbelief, pride, malice, etc. to deal with, but we think we are clean because we have whipped the sexual immorality. Sin is much more complicated than it seems. The most quoted phrase in regard to killing sin is the following:“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with him will not excuse you from this work (pp. 50)”
The nice thing about this edition is that Kapic and Taylor have set these important phrases apart by indenting them. Also, other phrases were italicized everywhere. This was really helpful. Some of Owen’s sentences are complicated and his thought process is so drawn out that you have to read a lot to understand some of his points. Justin and Kelly have helped tremendously that we don’t lose these vital truths!
III. Real Mortification Takes Place Only in Believers
It is only by the death of Christ, in the atonement He worked on the cross as our
Penal substitute that mortification of sin can be pursued (pp.49, 60, 70, 75, 78-86 [Chapter 7], 87, 92, 93, etc.). Owen says, “‘Sin...is crucified; it is fastened to the cross’ (pp.75).”
In chapter 7 this topic is most developed. Mainly if you are not a Christian Owen says your work is not mortification, rather conversion! Listen to his words, “there is no death of sin without the death of Christ (pp. 79),” “A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit (pp. 80),” “All attempts then, for mortification of any lust, without an interest in Christ, are vain (pp. 80),” “…mortification of sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them [unbelievers], hardens them – destroys them (pp. 83).” This leads Owen to his first general rule regarding mortification of sin:
“Be sure to get an interest in Christ – if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done (pp. 83)”
Accept Christ, and then the work of mortification is yours (pp. 84). He paints a good picture to from when Pharaoh made Israel make bricks without straw. It made their work much more difficult. If you can imagine that take Owen’s comment into account. “Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength?” Mortifying sin is not like making bricks without straw, rather making bricks without strength. It’s impossible!
God’s glory and our enjoyment of Him is the chief end of the work of mortification (Chapter 4). There is a description on page 65 that describes sin like a cloud, “[it] intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favor. Owen also says that, “every unmortified sin will certainly do two things…weaken the soul and darken the soul (pp. 64).” The focus here is that it entangles the soul’s affections. Sin, “diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for rigorous communion with God (pp. 64).” Humans’ affections must be wrapped up in the glory of God, not sinful desires.
There is a lot more than can be said of this book. My review is really probably inadequate to the main points I even picked out. They seemed to me to be the most important. My only complaint is that one difficult word to understand [impetuousness] was clarified by another difficult word to understand [vehemence] (pp. 73). It’s ridiculous that that would be my only complaint. This work is excellent! It’s my prayer that this fresh work by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor will awaken the Church to John Owen again. My recommendation to everyone is to buy this book and spend some time working through it. The other two Owen books look good as well!